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Ha Ha Ha Goes the Piccolo

Pomp and precision may be the thing at halftime in the Big Ten, but in the Ivy League bands are strictly for laughs

It will be time soon to rehash the season of 1968 and all those that preceded it in the bars of Harvard, Yale, Princeton and other Ivy League graduate clubs all over the land. In bull session after bull session, they will be remembering plays that even the players themselves have forgotten, plays that maybe never even happened. And it won't be until the third round of drinks that they will remember the plays made at half-time when the bands were on the field. But they will remember then and laugh and laugh.

It's a funny thing about bands in the Ivy League. In other conferences they are proud of their bands, and the bands themselves are proud agglomerations, dedicated to pomp and precision. They play Seventy Six Trombones with 76 trombones; their tuba players do a soft-shoe while they play complete symphonic movements. Michigan's band has formed a soldier that marches across the gridiron with moving legs. More than one big band has formed a fighter plane and sent it across the field discharging jet smoke from fire extinguishers. Stravinsky's The Firebird suite has been expertly performed on the football field at halftime with a professionally choreographed ballet.

But all that is Big Ten stuff. Big Ten bands, the same as Big Ten football teams, are big and good. Ivy bands, on the other hand, are rank amateurs, and so, whether by choice or by having to compensate for their lack of professionalism, several Ivy bands over the past half a dozen years have even decided to be funny. And they are, sometimes hilariously so.

"With us, the object is having a good time," says Peter Ecklund, a former head of the Yale band. "We always announce ourselves as the Yale Precision Marching Band. It sends the crowd into hysterics."

Even the bands that sound fairly decent musically, such as Harvard, have trouble keeping the lines straight. Formations more often than not turn out to be just a small blob of brass and reeds. In the past few years, in fact, a few bands have taken to satirizing themselves by frankly forming unrecognizable blobs and calling them whatever they want. Columbia fans have watched their band form a mandolin pick, a white backlash, a heart murmur, a piece of moral decay, a lump of consciousness (they expanded), an apron string and a Shakespearean sonnet (14 lines).

Ivy League bands have always been more casual than most of their counterparts to the south and west, but while they've long enjoyed putting an occasional joke on the field, it wasn't until the 1960s that a number of bands began real competition to see who could get the biggest laughs.

Each band is given six and a half minutes of show time, during which it must march onto the field, perform its show, play the college alma mater and march off again. Standard shows consist of commentary read over the public-address system and three related formations and readily identifiable songs (four in the case of those bands which, following Harvard's lead, have recently begun to save time by running from formation to formation rather than marching).

The alumni of one Ivy school were greeted at their 1964 reunion by a band complaining of an unpopular plan for financing building construction (to the Household Finance Corporation's jingle Never Borrow Money Needlessly). Columbia once shocked a preppy Princeton audience by stating, tongue in cheek, that Old Nassau is noted for having a well-rounded student body, then forming the letters W-A-S-P as they played Cherry Pink and Apple-Blossom White. It was also Columbia that first nominated Barry Goldwater for President during the 1963 season by announcing, "When J. Barry Silverwater is elected, the whole nation will rejoice in the knowledge that under his expert leadership we shall be ever marching ahead" and then marching off the field backward to the roar of the crowd. It was about that time that the Columbia band began billing itself as "The Cleverest Band in the World."

Although there allegedly was an agreement by all the Ivy bands several years ago banning obscene shows, it sometimes seems as though there is competition for the greatest number of complaints. The record may be held by Columbia for its 1964 "Salute to Moral Decay." After playing Never on Sunday for the clergy's advice on moral decay, and The Night They Invented Champagne for the parents of Darien, Conn., the Lion bandsmen announced they would form the upper part of a topless bathing suit. With a spirited rendition of These Are a Few of My Favorite Things, they scurried off the field leaving two strategically placed tubas.

Inevitably many stuffy alumni have complained about such shenanigans in the name of their alma maters, but others seem well-satisfied with the show. When Harvard band managers got fed up with the older alumni asking them to quit being funny and play some good music, they tried an experimental show featuring the marches of John Philip Sousa. As they marched off the field to The Stars and Stripes Forever, most of the audience, accustomed to satirical half-time performances, booed.

The Columbia Marching Band, like the other Ivies, doubles as a concert band with only a few personnel changes. According to last year's No. 2 manager, Michael Tracy, "After football season, many band members aren't content just to play concert music. In fact, it really seems as if a lot of them stay through the concert season just to keep in touch from one fall to the next. So we're always forming little splinter groups to play at basketball games or fencing meets, or to entertain the girls at Barnard when they have a 6 a.m. fire drill. Twice now we've played at the Columbia-Harvard debate."

As a result of trying to be more than one band at once, and complicated by afternoon chem labs and assorted seminars, practice for halftime shows is usually limited to about three hours a week, plus whatever time can be salvaged on Saturday morning. Since Columbia's stadium is a few miles from the campus, the band practices marching wherever it can find free space, usually in nearby parks. (Veteran band members recall one Friday afternoon when 40 or so musicians stayed on the central plaza of the campus until after sunset trying to learn to form an atom with three revolving rings, while astonished professors watched from their classroom windows.) If it rains on marching-practice day, the band sees their script for the first time on Saturday morning.

The creation of shows is more often than not a last-minute affair. Since they try above all to be topical, band managers rarely have much in mind before their weekly Sunday night meeting. Then ideas are tossed around in a giant bull session for an hour or more. Once a theme and a few key lines are agreed upon, one manager is given the task of writing the script. The music at least must be chosen by Thursday's rehearsal, but scripts are changed up until the last minute.

A few years back, Columbia got one of its best receptions with a show entitled "The Band Philosophy." "All season long," the announcer said, "you have been watching the Columbia-band philosophy in action. The band has concentrated not on big marching drills, production numbers or musical extravaganzas, but on humor. Today, however, we intend to show you that this focus on humor is purely a matter of choice, and that Columbia's band can, if it wishes, compete with the biggest of the mid-western show-business bands, and with those Ivy League bands that try so hard to imitate them." They marched out to Pomp and Circumstance; managed to spell out COL. with their 63 marching men; marched around in chaos for a full minute and announced they had spelled the Gettysburg Address "in flowing script"; and finished with a concert performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony—the first four bars. The audience was thrilled when they played a good oldout-of-tune Who Owns New York? and ran into the stands.

"I've watched hundreds of boring spectacles by bands of the western universities," a high school teacher wrote to one Ivy dean. "And I have been entertained more by football scores and by dogs running out on the field than by the bands. But when I saw my first Ivy League game I could hardly believe what I was hearing: a refreshing, satirical halftime show. And they say vaudeville is dead!"